music / sacramento / Words.

A Concept of Glass

Agnes Obel. Photo: Alex Bruel Flagstad

Agnes Obel. Photo: Alex Bruel Flagstad

Citizen of Glass is an exploration of fragility, paranoia, and transparency. Danish musician Agnes Obel created the album to experiment with the German concept “gläserner bürger,”  or a human of glass. “I know I can’t communicate everything with music,” she says with a laugh, speaking over the background sounds of the Berlin cafe she is calling from. “Some musicians are very good at communicating a certain kind of feeling, but I knew, I had a sense, at least, that I could communicate this feeling: fragile and transparent and maybe also the feeling of paranoia.”

Citizen is a deliberate departure from Obel’s previous work.Whereas, Philharmonics and Aventine are very piano and vocals based, Citizen is much more conceptual. “I wanted it to see if I could work with [the album] more conceptually and see if [it] would change the song writing and maybe the production.” In addition, Obel bought several rare instruments to give the album a different feel, including a sista, spinet and prepared piano (a piano with its sound altered by placing objects between the strings.) “They’re all more percussive than the piano and you could get the feeling that you were playing in glass and some of them [were] a little bit more metallic sounding…it sounds really old and really new and modern at the same time. I just really like things that sound old and new at the same time. You can’t really place it.”

What really makes Obel excited about the album are her songs about secrets. “[What you] lose when you become transparent, made of glass, is your secrets. And it made me think a little bit about how important secrets are for yourself and also for working creatively…Secrets make us feel like we have something special… if you’re writing songs or something, keeping it secret as long as you can and if you get a great idea, don’t tell anybody about it, you do that later. You should wait as long as possible. That whole feeling that it’s a secret will fuel the feeling that it’s something special and something sacred.” But she also recognizes the inherent dangers of secrets. “[They] can also be bad and be very destructive in your mind, your life if you keep them …  I’m really happy that I got both the painful potential in secrets and the dark potential, the more dangerous side of secrets into the album.”

Obel has mixed all her own albums, but Citizen was the first she recorded and worked on entirely on her own. It was also the most complex. “Almost every track was very complicated but I like to do that because I really learn from it. Because I recorded myself with each instrument, I also get to know the instrument and what it can do, much more than if I let a producer create or delegate.” She admits this propensity to work on her own can be problematic.”I have ideas but I’m not very good at putting them into words…  if somebody else was very good at doing that then my vision would never come across and then it would just never become anything.”

This problem with communication is part of the reason she became a solo artist in the first place. Musical from a young age, Obel has been in many bands, from a children’s band “with a baby’s name” as a teenager to playing in a band called ‘Simon’ with a guy named Simon. At seventeen she took an internship with a music studio in Copenhagen and saw the lead singer of a famous Danish band make his first solo album. “I could see that he was making his own universe in this album and how he was telling his own story and … I knew that I wanted to make albums too like that.”

When she was twenty-three, she was encouraged by her then-boyfriend (now husband) to go solo. “I was playing in two different bands and making my own music and he said to me ‘why don’t you make a solo project? Because the piano pieces you do on your own at home sound much better than the stuff you’re doing with your two band projects.’ And then he actually set up a little home studio for me.” Three years later, she moved to Berlin, and cut off from her other band projects back in Copenhagen, she began to really work alone. “When I work alone … I’m the only one doing it and so it can work without having to communicate anything [so I can] just sit and work and try to manifest the idea I have in my mind.”

Obel cannot point to any one musician or genre as an influence to her work. “I am not the … type to listen to one genre. I really think it’s strange when people [are] like that … I listen to as much as possible.” However, she says, she usually does not listen to music while making an album.”You can’t have this sort of open attitude and take in everything because you have to focus in on what’s going on in the vision of the album.” For Citizen, she took a different approach. “I really wanted to see if I could make songs that sounded like you were inside my head, in a way… I was really listening to musicians I thought were able to do that. One of them was Scott Walker. He’s really good at making arrangements and songs … where you feel like you are inside his mind, you’re inside of him in a way.”

Now that Obel is taking Citizen of Glass on tour and the real challenge is performing the dreamy, eerie songs. First, she and her touring band had to figure out how to arrange and play the tracks live. “It was a long period where we tried to find solutions.” Eventually, they found that looping the cello and using the tracks as a second instrument came “pretty close to the album.” However, Obel says, “I feel like … it’s quite different.” Judge for yourself below.

She will be touring the US with the album. Though she has been in the States before with her previous albums, this is the first she’s going into the middle of the country, outside of Chicago and Minneapolis. “This time we have much more dates inside the US. I’m playing new places so I’m very excited about that.” It’s a new experience more than Europe because she plays there “all the time.”

 

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Words: K.Hules.

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